Career Growth and Skill Development
You’ve had a phenomenal journey and you know this is a coveted role within Coke because of the fact that it is a fast growing market for you. What have been the turning points according to you in your own career?
My career has actually had many twists and turns and I don’t think I ever knew when I started my career that to get to where I am today. I think the best experience I had was the grounding. I started my career with Asian Paints, which taught me a lot about how things happen on the ground because they sent me for sales stints in Pune, in upcountry, Maharashtra and UP. And that was a great turning experience because I got to know India at the ground level.
I then worked for ITC which I still think amongst the most, best companies in the country and there I learnt a lot about the edible oil business but more importantly how to operate in a very low margin business and how to be frugal.
And then when I joined Coke in ’98 and I think that to me as a turning point, the biggest turning point in my career. I used to think that, you know, selling a soft drink is very easy, what’s so difficult about it! And then I realised how incredibly rich and complicated this industry is. And how much, you know, an individual can contribute.
So, from the day I joined when I spent six months in operations, again I learnt a lot because operations is all about sales, till the day I went to Atlanta and my first International assignment was when I left India in 1999, end of ’99 to go to Atlanta, where I discovered that the world is a lot more than Delhi, Bombay and India!!
And that international experience has been probably the most rewarding and most, the best development for me. And then the other turning point was when I came back to India in 2006 when we faced a huge crisis of confidence with our business were we faced allegations of pesticides in our product!
And we had huge declines in the business and the crisis of confidence with consumers, everyone and fighting that crisis, I think, was both very difficult but at the same time very rewarding because we came out of it very very strongly.
I am going to talk about the crisis because crisis is a very important place to learn and, I think, in anybody’s career it going to be. If I am going to ask you, you know, there is a huge push back to actually going to the ground and learning but I always see a generation of FMCG, you know, stalwarts like you, you’ve actually done work in the grass root level, I mean your learning come from real life experiences. What is your advice to youngsters who might not want to, you know, go and rough it out over there would rather go to a nice, you know, a cushy job in a head quarter, what is the learning from the grass root?
See, I think, it is somewhat, it’s like steel, the strongest of steel is forged in the hottest of flames. For anyone looking at the long term career the best way to learn and to become a tougher professional is to go and experience the toughest environments.
And the toughest environment, it depends on the industry, I mean, in the case of FMCG its sales, but, you know in Banking it could be something else or in Retail it could be something else. But in our industry, FMCG, the toughest environment is to go out there and actually sell.
In fact, I would say, almost any industry, the consumer or the customer are the one that pays your bills, if you haven’t spent time going out and begging and pleading with the consumer or customer to buy your product or service and do it on a day on day basis and understand what it takes to pay for those bills then no amount of corporate staff or any other function, role will teach you that.
And, I think, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt and if I were to advice anyone in their career I would say even if it is just the first two years of a thirty year career or two years in the middle of thirty year career, take that leap and go out and figure out what does it take to earn a rupee from a customer or a consumer who has a choice of paying you for your product or service or has a hundred other products that they can go for.
In ’99 when you went to Atlanta it was quite early in your stint within Coke because you joined in ’98, what was the experience like when you went to Atlanta? And then actually went on to work in 55 countries, what was the mind shift that it required?
See, I think, for a lot of us at least, you know, unlike today’s youngsters who have internet to expose them to the world, for us growing up in those days we were in a very insular country and, you know, we only liberalised in 1991 and we started getting international television in late ‘90s. So, I didn’t know what the world was like, I had no idea of what culture was outside of India.
So, I think, the biggest learning for me was cultural adaptation. Understanding that there are such significant differences in culture between us, and we think in India we have lots of cultural differences between the north and the south but they are still in the Indian ethos. And then you realise that’s very different from the Western ethos, very different from Latin American one.
And the ability to adapt is probably one of the most important lessons I learnt. And probably one of the most difficult experiences for me is just to first understand other people. People can speak the same language but what they mean when they say something is very different. To understand how to market to different cultures and recognize that, you know people’s needs and behaviour are so different! So that’s a big learning for me and big experience.
Through the course of the journey who are your role models? Because, you know, corporate career, you know, you can have multiple role models and multiple mentors but who are the two, three people you have looked up to, looking back?
Well, I would say two or three, one is of course, since I have spent my summers in college driving trucks, selling soft drinks not with Coke but with the previous company, I can tell you that, one I admired the most is the salesmen. The salesmen, especially in the FMCG business, in soft drink business, goes and calls on, in the peak of summer in 45 – 50 degrees heat, goes and calls on 50 outlets and delivers product in that heat.
But if you look at Corporate role models, one of my role models was my first boss Bharat Puri who is now the CEO of Fevicol of Pidilite Industries, and who taught me what empowerment is all about, who taught me what it means to recognise strengths in people and how to develop people while at the same time building their confidence, that one role model.
And then, within Coke, you know, we had so many senior managers and leaders who have looked up to and each of whom has taught me a lot.
What are the two, three learning that have helped you to reach where you have in terms of, you’ve spoken about different milestones in your career but if there were two, three things that you look back and say “that helped me”, what would it be?
See, I think, the best mantra that was once given to me was, one of my former bosses told me “if you don’t worry about your designation or your destination, just focus on today and do a really good job at what you have been given, you will do well in life”.
So, I think, that to me was probably was the best mantra or learning I could’ve had and over the years I have realised that I can never predict what the future is going to do, I can’t control the future and I can’t do anything about the past, but what I can do is focus on the present. And so every day just focus on what shall I be doing today to do a great job and deliver a great result for the role that I am performing. And then, the rest takes care of itself.
So, every role or opportunity I have had, it’s not as if I have sought it out or asked for it, it’s come knocking because of what I’ve done and because of what people have seen me doing as opposed to me saying I want to be there and that’s how I am going to get there.
A lot of youngsters today plan their career, you know, they’ve five year plans and ten year plans and they know exactly what they are going or where they are going, would you say that, you know, they are spending too much time looking at the goal rather than the journey? I mean, what is your advice to them?
See, my advice, this is only one person’s advice and that it’s what worked for me, is you can’t plan where you are going to be five years from now. What you can plan is, what experiences and skills are you going to develop and what track record you are going to leave behind, what kind of reputation you are going to create.
So, if you create a great track record, great reputation, great relationships, build experiences and skill sets that are broad based and yet have the functional roots.
Then, tomorrow whether you become CEO of this company or you become President of another company or you become an entrepreneur or you do something else all those opportunities will come only if you build your base and your foundation on those three or four things I said.
So, we will talk about that later when you talk about, you know, the need gap, you know, all of that but I am going to ask you, you spoke about the pesticide issue which was a big crisis for Coco Cola, what were the lessons from that, how did you, takes us through what really happened in terms of how the sales plummeted and how was your response it and what have you learnt from it?
So, I think, for us the pesticide issue was actually a déjà vu!!
Because we had similar incident in 2003 where an NGO alleged that there were, you know dangerous levels of pesticides in Coke and Sprite and all our products. And at that time, as is typical, you know there was lot of media firestorm around it, there were lot of scrutiny and at that time the management at that time did not take the issue seriously. And they essentially kind of, you know, try to push back on it and pretend that it didn’t exist.
And we saw a crisis of confidence in our products and we saw a slowdown in the business. Well when that issue recurred in 2006 and at that time, you know, my manager at that time Atul Singh and I and the whole leadership team, we said “look! We are going to confront this head on!”
And so the first thing is when you have a crisis face the facts! And, you know, accept that you are in a crisis!! And a lot of times people try to, you know, kind of bury their head in the sand and say “Oh! No there is no crisis it will blow over!” You have to accept and say “Okay, we are in a crisis how do we deal with it?”
When the allegation happened in August two thousand and six and the media broke the story and the NGO came on television claiming that they had tested the products and they have found unacceptable levels of pesticides, we saw our business decline double digits!! In fact in some cases, in some markets it was 30% – 40% decline, I mean, it was so serious it threatened the very existence of the business!!
We saw, you know, the governments, States trying to ban us in various places, schools and colleges banning our products and, you know, lot of irate consumers questioning our credentials. So the first thing that we did was we got an entire kind of crisis management team together and in any crisis the first thing is there is one boss, there is one crisis leader and everybody gets together to help, you know, help solve the problem.
The second thing is we identified who are the people we need to engage with to convince them that our product is safe. What is the sequence in which we are going to convince them and most important what tools will we use to convince them.
So the first was our employees, okay, so we immediately got all our employees, all 25,000 people across the country that included our bottler’s employees, our employees, our salesmen and we communicated to them almost on daily basis that ”look! Here are the facts, you are reading this in newspapers but the facts are that our products are safe, that, the reality was the testing protocol used was flawed and reality was that our products were the safest thing you could have with regard to pesticide residue in the country at that point in time.
So we communicated the facts to our employees, we then communicated to the retail and distributors because they are the one who sell the product because they are the ones who had consumers coming them and saying “we don’t want to drink this because it is dangerous” whatever. So retailers were the second one. The third, we got a celebrity Aamir Khan to come on television, drink the product and say “it’s safe” that helped a lot.
We also made sure that every single forum that we were in, myself included, we publicly drank our product and showed confidence, you know, it’s okay to drink this product. Engaged with media, we took media and journalist to our factories, took them for tours of factories and showed them our quality control mechanisms and our ingredients that were used and how there is no question of anything unsafe or harmful getting into our product. And to satisfy them, seeing is believing.
And then with the government we went in and said, look we welcome standards on pesticides, till then there were no government standards on pesticides that were used in foods. So we said look, go ahead and establish standards we would support them, we even helped, because we have global expertise, we helped with the testing protocols which the government could use to identify residues of pesticide.
And over a period of couple of years we were able to get even the policies changed so that nobody could once again raise fingers or point fingers at our products on the safety front, we said its safe.
So that was one learning, we were able to recover from that and after that we got 35 quarters of consecutive quarters of growth! And, you know, so far touch wood, we never had a recurrence of that but now lesson learnt from that is, always assume, that is a crisis around the corner!! And always be ready to deal with the next crisis and we all know for what’s happening right now with Maggie.
Yeah, absolutely and it’s an interesting play because with of lot of parallels over there which I was thinking about. But I am going to ask you, Coke makes the whole branding piece look very easy because, you know, it’s been around for so much, it’s the world most famous brand, so to say, but I am going to ask you ‘what is science behind the art of marketing that has worked for Coke?’ because, there, as you said, even in this crisis, you clearly defined the issue, you broke it up into pieces and it was a very left brain response to something like this. How is the brand like Coke use science to, you know, get the art of marketing out?
See, we look at marketing as a combination of science and art. It’s not one or the other, science or art. Science, I will give an example, great music is art but it is based on strong foundation of science which is the notes and the combination of notes which even the best artist can’t ignore.
So, same thing with marketing in Coke there is a foundation of science which says that, you know, consumers world over have certain needs and certain wants and behaviours and you can measure that and you can measure it based on simple questionnaire and surveys and things.
Second thing is that, you know, we have this, we have frameworks that we use which says, okay, if people, when you wake up in the morning till the time you to sleep you have various needs and occasions that are, at home, away from home, where you would eat something, drink something, feel thirsty, hang out with friends and then understanding what is that you are feeling at that time and how can a beverage and I am saying beverage, not just Coke, any beverage play a role in your life at that time.
Interestingly what we, just as an aside, is, you know, if you think back to any moment of happiness, joy or celebrity event or a fun time chances are that a beverage was there, a beverage was there, chances are one of our beverage was there, okay. So that is based on the insight that there are occasions in people’s lives and during those occasions people have needs, motivations and wants. So that’s the science.
And then the art comes in to how do we creatively place their product in their hands and in their minds and their desires through great advertising, through great in store communications, through great distribution of chilled product, you know, we have enough science to know that if you placed a product that is chilled within a cooler and the cooler is facing the entrance of the store, chances are that consumer will have an impulse to drink it, pick it up.
That’s why our coolers are all glass doors so that you can see the product that’s why you will find we have standards with our sales team that says, you know, you should merchandise in certain way that your packages have certain number of facings to the consumers.
So the science is in understanding what works and then the art is then how do you execute that in a way that delights and excites consumers.
That’s fascinating, you worked in 55 countries, are consumers same everywhere? For somebody wanting to get into FMCG as a sector what are the two, three ground rules or are there any ground rules?
See, consumers are the same everywhere, at least when it come to their basic needs and wants. Whether you are consumer in Latin America or India or in Europe, everyone wants to be loved, everyone wants to be accepted, and everyone wants to have a good time. But how they have a good time can vary, okay.
A good time in one place could be hanging out with friends, in another place it could be going out with your family somewhere and in another place it could be something as, going out and watching a movie, so the needs and wants are the same the solutions to his needs and wants are very different.
Now, what we have learnt is if you create a product that has universal appeal that meets a universal need than you can have a universal audience. And I will give an example, I mean, in our case of course Coke is universal because the taste profile of Coke is so unique it doesn’t actually, there is no equivalent comparison.
So if you ask what does a cola tastes like? It doesn’t taste like an orange or a lime or a lemon, or doesn’t taste like any familiar fruit or any taste that you had. It’s an indescribable taste!! And that’s what makes it so universally acceptable and that’s why 207 countries, no culture has rejected the taste of Coke.
So finding products that are universal in their appeal and if your scope is just India or even if your scope is just one state in India, making sure that you create and develop products that have a universal appeal will give you the widest possible audience.
And then how you market to this consumers, in fact, we found there is something that are very local, festivals, very local. You know, the package size, the package price that is very local. But family is a global thing, so we have had advertisements from Brazil which features families and families having great time together over a bottle of Coke and dinner; that worked even in India, worked even in Africa and Asia.
We have had teens, in fact interestingly what we have learnt is teenagers, urban teens across the world are more similar to each other than to rural teens in their own country. Okay, because today’s internet and social media has really connected urban teens to an extent where they are watching the same stuff, they are listening to similar music and they are experience the same things.
Sure, that’s fascinating and I think those are very interesting insight but tell me something how is technology changing business in FMCG? Both in the way you communicate, you relate to the consumer and the back end and do you see that becoming the game changer going forward as well?
See, I think you know by far our own history, you know, our technology, since this glass bottle is over 100 years and in fact this the 100th anniversary of our contour bottle!! So this product and package has not changed in 100 years!! However, since then, since we have introduced glass bottle, we have introduced cans, we have introduced PET bottles that didn’t exist earlier, so technological change constantly creates new ways and new forms of delivering products and services.
The second thing that’s changing because of technology and the change is more rapid is the, you are talking about back end, the back end changes such as distribution mechanisms. Today, you know, things like crowd sourcing and the economy and apps on smart phones all of them have created opportunities to collapse old business models.
So business models are going to evolve rapidly where traditional ways of, you know, sales and delivery models will change and that’s what technology is going to change.
Marketing, technology is going to change how we market completely, you know, the old days of the 30 second TVC while still very important in India currently, in many parts of the world they are losing relevance and now digital and conversation based marketing is coming to the fore. A long form content on media, now on social media, tends to travel much further and much better than 30 second TVCs on television in many places.
So technology is changing the house but the ‘what’ which is you still have to brush your teeth with toothpaste, you still have to, you know, drink a soft drink, those will probably sustain for long.
You know, when you talk about, you know, you passed out of IIM-A, you went through the ranks before you went to Atlanta, but when you look at youngster coming in, Venkatesh, how equipped are they to deal with the new challenges of FMCG or the new avenues or vistas and what are the skill gap that you see?
I think youngsters today are probably brighter intellectually and academically than in our era, I mean, I keep joking when I go to IIM Ahmadabad for either recruitment or give occasional lectures, I would look at them and say ‘I would not be able to get admission into those Institutes today!!’
Yeah, because the standards have been rising year and year the competition getting fiercer and fiercer and, you know, as a result it becomes harder and harder to get into some of these elite Institutes. So youngsters coming out from our best school and colleges, even Delhi University, they are very bright, they are very hard working and they are very academically and intellectually aware and what I feel that the two areas of gaps, you talked about skill gap, well beyond the skill gap there is also, there are three gaps I would say. One is they are very narrow and have not built a broad based personality or a set of interest, you know, ultimately we are all human beings we all relate to people as people. And this people skills, the EQ, the social skills, the ability to have wide interest is an important component of social development of a person. And a socially well adjusted human being is more likely to be successful.
So I often find people tend to that side of the development in their quest for academic excellence. That’s one and when, you know, even things like playing sport, having hobbies, having interests and excelling outside of that one field of academics.
The second skill gap I find is we don’t emphasise enough teamwork and collaboration because we are such a highly competitive academic environment and ranks matter so much and individual, you know, test taking ability is what matters most. We don’t spend enough time training our youngsters on how to collaborate through projects and how to collaborate!! And that’s the second gap I see and we need to make sure and we often have to get people more collaborative when they get into business world.
And the third skill gap, the third gap and not a skill gap is I think the gap in terms of expectations. There tends to be a, you know, I guess may be a sense of urgency to get to the top and get ahead as quickly as possible which, you know, yes you see the occasional success story of a 30 year old become a CEO of a company but the reality is that the vast majority of people have to go through the basics of learning and getting critical experiences and yes, career advancement can be faster in today’s world but expectations tend to be pretty high.
And over a period of time I find that youngsters have to learn about life through the school of hard knocks.
Well, that’s well put; tell me, how important is continuous learning as you take one assignment after other? How much of re-skilling also has to be done by the individual himself? Because the jobs can be challenging, you can have stretched targets etc., but how much one invest in oneself? And what is your own experience been?
See, I think, learning has to be self driven because no amount of class room teaching or no amount of mentoring or coaching or on the job can teach somebody if they are not willing to learn. So, being able to learn or the learning habit is probably the most important kind of life skills you need to have and can have.
After that what you learn, 70% of what you’ve learnt is on the job because you only learn by doing. I mean, today you cannot be a great musician, carpenter, artists or professional executive without actually having done that!! So, on the job 70% and by having the right kinds of jobs with the right experiences you learn and that’s why I keep saying focus on experiences and skill sets the career advancement will come.
The second is 20% is through projects and stretch assignments and coaching and mentoring experiences which you have to seek out and most organisations gives those opportunities and only 10% is classroom learning. Only 10% is classroom, online, courses, whatever else, only 10%.
So, in 365 days of the year at most you would spend 20 – 25 days in doing all the stuff that we typically consider as learning rest of the time you are learning on the job.
But I am going to ask you, you know, lot of changes in the FMCG industry, you know, in industry as such. Has the academic piece kept pace with the realty of the ground? Because there is a gap in how we teach and what we need to do and you see Institutes keeping pace with what’s happening in reality.
See, I see some institutes doing that and the one’s they do that, they produce students who are better equipped for the world but I also think not enough is being done. And it’s a two way street, to be honest, Corporate like us and Corporate leader’s like us don’t spend enough time going back to do guest lecturers, teach at the Institutes and help bring real life experience and same time many institutes are so caught up with doing the curriculum which often is based on years old, you know, expertise and experience, they don’t update the curriculum fast enough and offer.
So it’s a two ways street, I think over a period of time what we are going to start seeing in institutes and learning establishments is that a lot of the learning will happen through digital media and lot of the learning is going to happen through new, and I, as yet unheard of unthought-of means where the classroom ends up becoming more of a place where you have discussion and the learning happens in the dome or in small groups outside of the classroom.
So, I think it’s going to change and we’re at the cusp of a change.
So what is your message for an online education, piece like UpGrad, you know, which is trying to bridge this gap, you think it is the right direction and you think, you know the inputting from the industry is very crucial in actually working the curriculum?
I think it is a great initiative to have an online education system because, you know, having brought up two teenagers I can tell you that they learnt more online than in the classroom! And the online education experience allows students to self pace the learning and also allows them to learn in their own way. Because you can have through online you can actually have both visual, verbal, auditory senses and pickup whichever one you want.
Now, that combined with good classroom mentoring by a good professor combined with good collaborative learning experiences with like minded students is a perfect golden triangle as I would say. And you add on top of that the expertise and experiences of practitioners who can come and give the practical side of it, then you have created the best learning experiences.
Often I find that one or two of these elements are missing and so students are missing out on best opportunities. So what your, what online portal is doing is filling in one of those gaps.
Last question Venkatesh, you know, you have seen so many youngsters come into Coco Cola and do well, you’ve seen the industry evolve, what is your advice to youngsters who want to really have a go at things, you know, you’ve identified the need gaps, but I am going to ask you what is your advice? What’s worked for you and what do you think is the two things that they should take away from this conversation?
Well, it’s hard to summarise in a couple of words but I would say “Pursue your dreams”.
You know, for a lot of us growing up in India where opportunities are few and far between, we essentially went down the path of least resistance or the path of least risk.
Today’s India offers enormous opportunities for youngsters to go out and try new things and try things differently. So whether they chose to join the Corporate like us where they can take risk within the corporate environment and produce fabulous results and grow or they go out and become entrepreneurs and do their own thing or they pursue a completely different path and chose to go outside the corporate world and outside all the business and do social service to enter the government.
Whatever it is pursue what you feel passionate about, you will be successful at it and the money, the fame, the fortune, the success will be a result of you pursuing your passion as opposed to a result of you pursuing the fame or success or the money.